Tag Archives: Climbing

Seasons of Ice: Part 1 Spring

As Irish skiers go, I’m pretty average, which is to say, I’m a bad skier. I can survival ski down most things, but the grace and elegance that the residents of my current home display on the slopes still eludes me. The benefits of learning to ski before developing risk awareness is all too apparent.

This was on mind when talking over the phone with Ben Pelto (University of Northern British Columbia). Those of you who have read other posts on this blog will know that Ben and I regularly work together during our summer fieldwork campaigns on the glaciers of BC (see On Conrad Glacier: Part 1 and Part 2). It was January, and we were discussing plans for a spring trip to the mountains, specifically Conrad Glacier, to observe how the winter had treated the glacier, and to scout out locations for the coming summer’s deployment of my weather stations. We were also planning to perform scans of the glacier using a ground penetrating radar (GPR), which would provide us with information on how thick the ice is, and the general shape of the underlying bed. This would all require some serious skiing.

Three months later, I am on a familiar road. With skis and camping gear in the back, I’m winding my way along the 750 odd kilometers from Vancouver to Golden, in eastern BC. Tonight, I’m meeting Ben and his sister, Jill, before an early morning helicopter flight to the ice.

 

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Stopping off at Roger’s Pass, en route to Golden.

 

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Morning of departure at the Alpine Heli base, with Jill and Ben.

 

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Happy for our mechanical problems to happen on the ground.

 

After a brief delay to fix a clogged spark plug, we were in the skies above the Purcell Mountains, in good flying weather. It was my first time taking this journey in what were essentially winter conditions, and I was glued to the window as we maneuvered between the snow-covered peaks. We landed on the west flank of Conrad Glacier at 2,300m. Our campsite overlooked the jagged crevasses of the icefall that lay above our summer field sites. We dug out level platforms in the snow for our tents, and built up walls on the upper side to keep out the cold, downhill ‘katabatic’ winds that can develop on glaciers at night. In the front vestibules, we dug out lower platforms for storing gear, and putting on our boots in the mornings. Finally, we dug out a table and benches, and pitched a tarp over it to serve as our kitchen.

 

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Home.

 

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Our mess tent. The option to get out of the elements for awhile to cook and eat can make all the difference.

 

One of the main goals for this trip was to get an idea of how much snow the glacier had received over the winter, and how much water this snow will produce if it melts in the  summer. To this end, we needed to take regular measurements across the glacier of the depth of this season’s snow, and its density. After setting camp on the first day, we skied down to the terminus of the glacier, and took a series of these measurements as we moved back up the slope. The weather was mild, and we were surprised to find a well developed melt water stream this early in the season, carving a channel into the surface snow. In the weeks preceding our trip, we had been keeping an eye on data from snow sensors located on mountains in this region. The early onset of spring was resulting in some significant snow melt, and the question on our minds was whether 2016 would prove to be as detrimental to the glaciers in this region as the record losses of 2015.

Late in the afternoon, with the weather beginning to turn, we pushed back to the shelter of our camp. After a warm meal, we watched the skies clear and felt the temperatures drop as the indigo twilight turned into a star filled mountain night.

 

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Ben and Jill, ascending past an icefall on the glacier.

 

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Ben, probing the snow depth to determine how much the glacier had received over the winter.

 

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A well developed melt stream (supraglacial channel) was a surprise find this early in the year.

 

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Returning to camp just as the weather began to close in.

 

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Nights fall on our Conrad spring camp.

 

Day two saw the beginning of our radar campaign. Our objective was to ascend to the upper plateau of Conrad, taking measurements along the way. The GPR system consists of a transmitter, and a receiver, each mounted on skis, with antenna extending out in between. The transmitter sends out a pulse of energy that passes down through the ice, and reflects off the bedrock underneath. The reflected energy is detected by the receiver, and the time taken by the pulse to travel to the bed and back tells us how thick the ice is. That’s the theory. The practical involves hauling this system over large swaths of the glacier, up steep slopes and icefalls, and around crevasses, trying to keep the system in line as much as possible. The relatively mild temperatures and strong sunshine made the hauling difficult, with the sleds prone to digging into the soft snow and tipping over. Despite this, we managed to cover significant ground with the radar, completing day trips of over 20km in some cases. Descending with the GPR was always an interesting experience, generally completed at the end of the day when we were returning to camp with already tired legs. We needed to act as brakes to stop the system from torpedoing down the mountain, requiring us to snowplow in our skis for kilometers downhill at a time, quad muscles screaming.

 

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Ascending Conrad towards the upper icefall, with the GPR in tow.

 

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Myself and Ben hauling the GPR across the stunning upper plateau of Conrad (Pic: Jill Pelto).

 

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Shared slopes. We came across these wolverine tracks in the snow at 2,900m.

 

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Cloud streams across the faces of the surrounding peaks.

 

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Probing the snow depth as we moved up the glacier (Pic: Ben Pelto).

 

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Completing a GPR survey on the glacier close to camp.

 

Our days on the glacier continued with combined snow depth/density measurements and GPR surveys. Working on the upper plateau of Conrad, the expanse of mountainous terrain around us was astounding. On every degree of the compass, snow covered peaks jostled for space on the horizon, like some jagged, storm blown ocean. A thought that keeps returning to me when working in these places, is what a privilege it is to be afforded such isolation and space in what is an increasingly crowded world. No traffic, sirens, voices, bleeping phones, or engines (apart from the occasional helicopter). To have access to the culture and community that living in a society provides is a great thing, but I am grateful for these opportunities to exist in solitude with nothing but survival and science to drive us on.

On one of our last days on the upper section of the glacier, we continued to record snow depth values to well over 3,000m elevation, and decided to push on  to climb the summit of Mount Conrad; the peak which had loomed over us as we worked. We ascended on skies to within 50m or so of the 3,290 summit, before shedding our gear and scrambling the rock and snow of the final section. We climbed in beautiful weather (as had been the case for most of the trip; very unusual for Conrad), and our view from the summit was unimpeded in all directions. Turning from the summit, my thoughts were now fully occupied by the ski descent necessary to get off the mountain. The conversation I had had with Ben in January regarding my ski experience was echoing in my head as I clipped into my skis, and double checked my bindings. This was steep for me, but hesitating or leaning back would be the wrong option. I watched Ben and Jill drop in, took a solid breath, and followed.

 

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Ben, checking some gear, on the ascent of Mount Conrad.

 

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On the summit, looking south into Bugaboo Provincial Park; a climbing mecca I had visited a year previously.

 

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My view from the top, prior to our ski descent.

 

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On a very fun section of the descent back to camp. The beautifully symmetrical ski tracks are not mine (Pic: Ben Pelto).

 

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Below the tumbled walls of one of the icefalls we passed through on the return to camp.

 

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Light from a low sun highlights the textures of the glacier.

 

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Back at camp after another rewarding day.

 

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Ski boots that aren’t your own can be unforgiving on long touring days, but it was little to complain about.

 

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Looking north down the valley as the day ends.

 

Our spring visit to Conrad had been very successful, with a wealth of snow and ice thickness data recorded over much of the glacier. Throughout our travels , I had been scouting for potential sites for installing the weather stations in the summer; just two short months away. One would be deployed in a similar location to last year; lower on the glacier in the ablation zone (the area on a glacier where more ice/snow is lost than gained from year to year). The other would be a more ambitious venture. The upper plateau at 3,000m would provide a unique and intriguing location to gain information on the glacier’s weather and melt relationships. It would also present a much harsher environment to operate in. Would we get a decent enough weather window to allow us to install the equipment (several days work), and if so, could the system withstand a season in tough and, as of yet, untested conditions? We would find out soon enough.

 

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The moon sets behind Conrad as another day begins.

 

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‘What are men to rocks and mountains’? Ascending a western branch of the glacier.

 

Up Next: Part 2 Summer

Svalbard Part 4: To the icy core

A glacier is more than an ice cube. Rather than being solid, uniform blocks, glaciers can have incredible variations throughout in terms of structure, temperature, and movement. The surface and the base of a glacier can communicate with each other, and the language of this communication is water.

When ice and snow on the surface of a glacier melts, it can produce a lot of water. Streams of this meltwater flow over the surface of a glacier during the warmer months of the year. These streams can cut or ‘erode’ into the glacier, creating paths or channels which the water flows through. Over time, these channels can cut deeper and deeper into the glacier, their roofs closing over to create tunnels through the ice which can bring the meltwater from the surface all the way down to the bottom of the glacier. This is important because increasing the amount of water underneath a glacier can encourage it to slide faster.

During the cold winter months, melt channels are generally dry. We had explored one of these channels previously on Scott Turnerbreen (see Svalbard Part 2: Balancing Act), and decided that some more time under the ice was needed. There had been reports of an excellent ice cave on Larsbreen, a glacier within an hour’s hike of Longyearbyen. So one Tuesday evening, with duties at UNIS finished for the day, Tom, Ellie, Jelte, and myself met on the outskirts of the village, and began the trek to the glacier. Our plan was to explore the cave for a few hours, and then being a bunch of idiots, to stay overnight inside the ice.

(A note on the images: the caves in the glacier were entirely dark, with our headlamps being the only source of light. Therefore, for me, much of the photography was experimental; playing around with shutter speeds, iso settings, and flashes, while avoiding damaging my camera too much when climbing and crawling. As always, click on images to see them in full resolution)

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Nighttime in the mountains above Longyearbyen.

 

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At the cave entrance, on Larsbreen.

 

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The walls of the channel were lined with a huge variety of beautiful and delicate ice structures.

 

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Glaciologist: defrosting.

 

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By the light of the moon, we found the entrance to the cave; first squeezing into a tunnel down through the overlying snow to get into the glacier itself. The passage through the ice twisted, widened, and narrowed, like a desert rock canyon; in sections coated in fragile crystal structures, then changing  to smooth, swirled patterned walls like polished marble. We followed the channel as far as we could go, descending through a series of levels and passages until we were forced to stop at a major drop; the location of what would have been a waterfall during the melt season. We picked a spot where we could roll out our bags for a few hours, and returned to the surface for some frigid air before sleep. On the way to the surface, I had a ‘how did I get here’ moment; crawling out of a glacier through a snow tunnel in the middle of the night, with a rifle on my back to watch out for polar bears, and being greeted by the northern lights.

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Our home for the night: a cosy ice chamber inside the glacier.

 

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Student accommodation in the Arctic can be grim

 

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My choice of sleeping spot, or as it became know as, the ‘MRI machine’.

 

Our night in the glacier was a memorable experience, but it felt like the caves had a lot more to show us had we been willing to push a little further. A few days later, we returned to Larsbreen.  Armed with ice climbing gear, Tom, Andi, and myself  would attempt to work our way down some of the larger drops that had stalled us on the previous visit, and see how deep we could get.

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Descent was carried out through the use of ladders, fixed ropes, and rappels for the longer drops.

 

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Climbing up

 

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Climbing down

 

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Climbing my way up through an ice chimney.

 

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Tom, about to drop over the edge of the first rappel section, which was extremely narrow.

 

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Close to the base of the glacier, looking upwards through the section we had just rappelled down. The dark bands in the ice are layers of debris and sediment (rock and soil) that has been picked up by the glacier as it moved along the valley floor.

 

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Getting narrow…

 

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Narrower…

 

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Wide. We reached the base of the glacier to find a cathedral of ice.

 

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Crawling through an R channel (a tunnel cut into the bottom of the ice by a stream running along the bed), with the entire glacier above our heads.

 

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(photo: Andi Alex)

 

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End of the line. The channel eventually became too narrow for us to proceed further.

 

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Belaying Tom up the last pitch of ice climbing (photo: Andi Alex).

 

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Back on the surface, and being watched by a distant reindeer (photo: Andi Alex).

 

We found the bed of the glacier, and it was an awe inspiring experience to have this entire mass of ice lying above us. My thanks to my like-minded companions on both trips for their company; the highlight of being in such incredible places is to share it with great people.

Vantage Point

We drove through the snow to get to the desert.

Our destination was south of the 49th parallel, to the home of some of Washington state’s finest rock climbing, Vantage. The drive east from Seattle is a compressed lesson in geography. Leaving behind the moist, cloud catching city on the Pacific coast, the road quickly rises to thread the barrier of the Cascade mountain range. Snow drifts, and white peaks signal the temperature drop as our altitude increases. Descending on the eastern side of the range, the snow vanishes as quickly as it appeared, replaced by a dry, rocky expanse, shielded from the moisture to the west by its lofty neighbours.

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Landscape surrounding Vantage

We were a party of climbers from the University of British Columbia’s Varsity Outdoor Club (UBC VOC), with a plan to escape the inclement weather in Vancouver for a weekend. Having only decided to go the day before, approaching the US border, I had images of paperwork problems,  and forcing my Canadian co-passengers to turn around and drop me at the nearest bus route back to Vancouver. In reality, the crossing was seamless; the benefit of an Irish passport. With the 450km drive complete, including a supply stop at the vast wilderness that is the American supermarket, we arrived just before midnight on Friday. Tents up. Bags down. Bed.

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Morning walk in to the climbs on Sunshine Wall.

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Restricted access

The climbing in Vantage is predominately located on the basalt columns that make up the cliff faces, giving a huge selection of arête and crack routes, with some good rock faces in between. On Saturday, we focused our efforts on Sunshine Wall, ticking off a few of the classic single pitch routes, and one very enjoyable multi pitch route with an amazing view.

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Victor belaying on the first route of the day

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Leading the first pitch (photograph by Victor Gan)
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Sunshine Wall lives up to its name

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Time out to take in the surroundings (photograph by Victor Gan)

Climbing, like many things, had been put on the back burner while I was getting ready to move to Canada, and this was my first day on the rock since last summer. I am far from a good climber, but climbing can reward all equally. Once the underlying nerves and fear can be controlled, climbing gifts you with the opportunity to focus solely on the action at hand, remove distractions, and to reset from the loops that your mind can get stuck in during day to day life. And when all the swearing and scraping is done, it feels pretty epic to get to the top too.

The day ended like all good camping days should, with a big feed, a social fire, and a warm sleeping bag.

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Stars emerge
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Harmony in camp

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Saturday night was not without incident, the stillness punctuated with occasional distant but powerful booms, which we learned later were from artillery testing  taking place in the region. We had our own pyrotechnics closer to hand, with what appeared to be a very sizeable gas canister  explosion in another group’s camp. After a pause, the sound of hysterical drunken laughter drifting through the smoke assured us that all was well.

Sunday morning started as Saturday finished, with beautiful sunshine. Stocking up on vitamin D, and with a plan to hit the road at noon, we headed out early to a rock section overlooking our camp, known as the Feathers. In the more laid back atmosphere of a Sunday morning, we worked our way through three or four short but technical routes, and soaked up as much of the desert ambience as we could before we had to load up, and head out.

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Climbing in the morning sun
Last move on the last route

This trip was my first to  the United States (apart from flight stopovers). A combination of striking surroundings, friendly locals, and some exciting climbing, made it memorable, and left me with a positive impression, despite the reminders coming from the sounds in the distance. More importantly, it achieved the goal I hope for the most when I travel. I felt like I was somewhere completely different.

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Approaching the Columbia river crossing on the way out